The Lifted Veil by George Eliot

George Eliot’s 1859 novella The Lifted Veil has, like Amos Barton before it, renewed my interest in getting back into Eliot’s long works—though hopefully it won’t be another two years before I finally move on that. Here, the themes are among my favorites: the problems of sympathy and understanding other people.

The narrator, Latimer, has laid his tale down for posterity in part because he’s never told a living soul anything about his real inner life. “I have never fully unbosomed myself to any human being; I have never been encourage to trust much in the sympathy of my fellow-men,” he tells us. But while he has never unbosomed himself, his fellow-men have, albeit unknowingly. As a young man, Latimer began to suffer from the strange condition of being able to read other people’s thoughts. And most of the people he spent time around didn’t think very positively of him at all.

At the same time as this condition develops, Latimer meets Bertha Grant, the ward of a family friend who will soon be engaged to Latimer’s older brother. Mysteriously, Latimer cannot read Bertha at all, and this fact makes her unsurpassably attractive to him. Into her coy, coquettish behavior he infers a special playful sympathy, and he has a vision—he is sometimes also clairvoyant—of them married. But in this vision, he can read her thoughts, and they are not pleasant. Still, he can’t help loving her and is determined to marry her:

Behind the slim girl Bertha, whose words and looks I watched for, whose touch was bliss, there stood continually that Bertha with the fuller form, the harder eyes, the more rigid mouth—with the barren, selfish soul laid bare; no longer a fascinating secret, but a measured fact, urging itself perpetually on my unwilling sight. Are you unable to give me your sympathy—you who read this? Are you unable to imagine this double consciousness at work within me, flowing on like two parallel streams which never mingle their waters and blend into a common hue?

Eliot takes on this subject from a different angle than many of my favorite writers and their works: instead of the desperate struggle to understand our fellow beings, Latimer is in a desperate struggle not to understand them. “So absolute is our own soul’s need of something hidden and uncertain for the maintenance of that doubt and hope and effort which are the breath of its life, that if the whole future were laid bare to us beyond to-day, the interest of all mankind would be bent on the hours that lie between,” Latimer avers. The Lifted Veil is a reminder that familiarity breeds contempt, and that a certain something must be left to the imagination.

7 comments to The Lifted Veil by George Eliot

  • I just finished this book as well for the challenge! I really enjoyed it. I now think I might be ready to tackle Middlemarch. I love your review.

  • Familiarity does breed contempt. And I love that quote you pulled in the last paragraph. I have always appreciated Eliot’s sensibilities but grow weary of them before the end of long format. Hoping that this will be just the right dose of her for me.

    And look at your bad-ass self! You are just cruising along. I need the weekend to make some real progress.

  • MJ

    This sounds so good! I’m eagerly looking forward to getting this one from the library. The only Eliot I’ve read is “Middlemarch,” which I enjoyed much more than I was expecting.

  • I read this in a Victorian Lit class in college and was a bit bemused by it. An odd little novella, as I recall. That was before I’d read any other Eliot, and I’m looking forward to revisiting this now that I have more context for her (a few big novels and a bio).

    You’re tackling several of my top picks for this challenge early on in the month!

  • I was also fascinated by the Latimer’s sixth sense like powers – and while I definitely agree with you that “understanding” is one aspect of it, so too, does imagination. At times, it feels like the story is about the perils of over-imagination – how everyone else in the story (the father, the doctor who he calls, his wife, his wife’s society friends) seems to view Latimer as this sickly, invalid-type, especially in contrast to his hardy brother.

    I need to go for a run/walk. Anyone else feeling this urge during this challenge?

  • Heidi—Thanks! I read Middlemarch back when I was just a teenager and an even worse reader than I am now, so I very much want to re-read it. But I have so much trouble committing to re-reads of long works when there are so many I haven’t read even once yet.

    MJ—I’m always impressed by how much love I see Middlemarch getting in the litblogosphere!

    Emily—It is quite odd. One thing about this Art of the Novella challenge is that it will give me fodder for “revisiting” posts for ages to come—I didn’t get to say anything about the Gothic/Romantic style, the extreme allusions to Frankenstein, and the general un-Eliot-ness of the thing (aside from the themes, which I believe are very Eliot). Anyway, I’ll try to pick some stuff you wouldn’t like for next week. Wait, is that possible?

    Kenny—Haha, I’m more feeling the need to forgo my gym routine in favor of more reading time! And you touch on another thing I would have liked to explore further: how reliable is Latimer as a narrator? I don’t mean as regards his clairvoyancy, necessarily, but in terms of his judgment of his own and others’ worth as human beings. He regards himself as sensitive and everyone around him as shallow. Yet the rest of society seems to get on well together and enjoy each other’s company, while he brings everyone down. Is he serious-minded and thoughtful, or just a jerk?

  • Frances—Didn’t mean to miss you! I’ll be interested to see what you think of this since, as I noted above, it’s in many ways different from the other Eliot I’ve read.

    Lit gods willing, I will continue my cruising. You have brought out my competitive side—competitive with myself, that is! I want that bibliomaniac title now!